If I’ve learned anything in years of discussing screenwriting online, it’s that people have an unending appetite for being told that they CAN write, but that they violently resent being told HOW to write. Even the merest suggestion of assumed orthodoxy can set off flame wars. Writers rarely agree on anything.
People hear beats and they tend to think of guys like Blake Snyder, who codified entire systems of beats – inciting incidents, darkest moments, fun and games. Let’s leave those aside for now, while those might be a KIND of beat, they’re not the only kinds of beats.
Beats are not inherently formulaic, they become formulaic once people start making assumptions about what “must” be in them.
There are two kinds of beats: the beats of a story and beats within a scene.
Beats within a story: John August says that your average story can be written in 30-50 index cards. A beat is a unit of story. Scripts tend to have around 40 beats, so in practical terms a beat is about 2.5 pages and is simply a moment in a story that justifies 1/40th of the narrative (or 1/30th, or something else, depending on the number of beats). It could be an action moment, it could be expository, it could be really emotional. It’s just a generic unit of measure, saying scripts tend to be made up of beats is like saying novels tend to be made up of sentences or chapters.
A beat is major event in the story that makes fundamental changes to the world of the story. “Bob and Joe fight and end their partnership” is a beat. “Bob gets off the plane” is not, unless Bob is Mr. Bean.
Beats within a scene: In the same way a story beat is a unit of a screenplay, a scene beat is a unit of a scene. There aren’t any hard, fast rules for these, but they represent the major moments in a scene.
For instance, the beats in this scene might be:
- Buzz works on his “spaceship”
- Woody confronts Buzz
- Woody opens Buzz’s helmet, Buzz panics
- Woody realizes Buzz thinks he’s the real deal, mocks him
Again, there’s no hard rules for beats, one could break down the referenced scenes in more beats or fewer, but the beats of a scene represent a higher level view of what’s going on in the scene, over and beyond the action and dialogue.
If you’ve read this far, you might ask, why does screenwriting use the same term for two different things? That’s a fair question, and I don’t have an answer. Screenwriting terminology is often fuzzier than we might like, but you learn to live with it.
Someone is probably going to say that beats are an artificial construct, and that you don’t need to use them. That’s fair, no one needs to do anything, but a lot of people do use them, and you may find them helpful.